The question of who should be allowed to participate in elections, whether by voting in them or running for office, has plagued democracies since their founding when the ancient Greeks debated if enslaved men deserved voting rights. In the United States, this history goes back to the founding fathers writing a constitution that left the decision of who could vote to the states. In practice, this meant that white men with property were the only Americans routinely permitted to vote until the enfranchisement of most white men without property in the mid-1800s.
After many long fights for the suffrage of different groups, today the U.S. government cannot restrict voting rights on the basis of race or sex. States still have the power to legislate their own unique laws regarding the requirements in place to vote, such as photo identification requirements and restrictions for people who have been convicted of a felony. Because the United States has a federalist system that allocates power to both the federal and state governments, there is a great deal of variance in election laws between states. This can make it difficult to navigate voting policies, especially for Americans who may move to a new state or be first-time voters.
One group that is often restricted from participating in elections are people who have been convicted of a felony. Kentucky was the first state to restrict voting rights for people who have been convicted of a felony in 1792; by 1870, 28 out of 38 states had followed suit. In the landmark Supreme Court case Richardson v. Ramirez in 1974, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that laws disenfranchising people convicted of a felony do not violate the 14th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, reaffirming the right of individual states to decide how they would handle their policies.
During the 1990s, several states rolled back their disenfranchisement policies for people who have been convicted of a felony. Today, there are 22 states where people regain the right to vote after being released from prison, 16 states which reinstate voting rights after they complete all parole requirements, eight states that have differing policies based on the type of crime that was committed, two states with no restrictions, one state in which they must petition the governor to regain suffrage, and one state where first time offenders automatically regain voting rights.
In terms of being able to run in elections, the U.S. Constitution lays out the requirements for holding federal office in the legislative or executive branch. To run for a seat in the U.S. House of Representatives, a candidate must be at least 25 years old, have been a U.S. citizen for at least seven years, and inhabit the state they wish to represent. To serve in the U.S. Senate, a candidate must be at least 30 years old, have been a U.S. citizen for at least nine years, and inhabit the state they wish to represent. The requirements for the presidency are the most strict with candidates having to be at least 35 years old, a natural born citizen, and resided in the U.S. for at least 14 years.
Restrictions on running for state offices vary but still primarily focus on citizenship, residence, and age. There are currently five states—Rhode Island, Wisconsin, Ohio, California, and Washington—where you can run for any state-level office, including governor, if you are above the age of 18. This type of requirement is called a “Qualified Voter Requirement,” and it means that anyone who is eligible to vote can run for office.
To learn more about the voting policies in your state, click here and select your state from the drop-down menu. It is important to check these rules before voting, even if you have voted in the same location before, because state legislatures can change the law between election seasons. States may have banned or added day-of voter registration, changed policies regarding what pieces of identification are needed, or established new requirements for the process of submitting a ballot.
Laws regarding voter and candidate eligibility passed during the 2021 and 2022 legislative sessions are organized below by state. Click the links under a state to see how voting requirements will be different from 2020 in the upcoming general election.
Voter Eligibility Laws:
Laws Regarding Voting Rights for People Convicted of a Felony:
Candidate Eligibility Laws:
This was written by Katie Thompson and Ashley Peldiak. Katie is the director of Officials Research at Vote Smart, with a degree in political science and sociology from Iowa State University and a specialization in demography. Ashley is a communications associate at Vote Smart, with a degree in English and experience creating and editing content for various mediums including social media.